Rare And Endangered Birds Of India By Ramki Sreenivasan
This gallery of avian images represents Ramki Sreenivasan’s quest to search for and document some of India’s rarest birds across the country. On an ever-changing, fast degrading subcontinent, this conservation photographer’s goal is to use imagery to spur protective action. Even most serious birders have probably never seen many of these birds leave alone photograph them. When we asked the photographer what motivated him to turn away from a successful corporate life to one that embraced wild India, he replied: “In my view travel to these natural areas does not merely feed one’s soul, but also fosters a better understanding and appreciation of the world we live in, especially the rapidly escalating threats they face. Photography is a passion for me, but I recognise that it is a powerful conservation tool that can and should be used to defend our vanishing wilderness.”
The following images were shot primarily with Canon DSLRs and Canon Telephoto (400 mm/f4 DO, 500 mm/f4, 800 mm/f5.6) lenses.
Great Indian Bustard Ardeotis nigriceps (Critically Endangered)
The Great Indian Bustard is an iconic species now found only in India and will probably be the first species to go extinct in this generation if urgent conservation measures aren’t taken to protect its specialised grassland habitat. Extirpated from 90 per cent of its former range, it can only be seen in some very small patches in the country. Best estimates place surviving numbers at below 300 individuals, while pessimistic estimates put it at a scary 50. In addition to the usual threats of habitat loss due to agriculture and industrialisation, photographers chasing these birds (especially during the breeding season) are a very serious threat and this is something that we have to collectively stop.
Wynaad Laughingthrush Garrulax delesserti (Least Concern)
Almost impossible to photograph, this endemic Western Ghats laughing thrush is threatened by rapid habitat loss and has a very small and severely fragmented range. The population size has not been quantified, but it is not believed to approach the thresholds* for Vulnerable under the population size criterion. I have never worked harder to photograph any bird than the Wynaad Laughing thrush in the lowland bamboo and evergreen rainforests of Edamalayar near Thattekad in Kerala. Following several failed attempts to photograph the bird here, and elsewhere in the southern Western Ghats, it took a very determined effort from bird guide Eldhose, who helped me track these birds in prime elephant country, to finally capture this image!
* <10, 000 mature individual with a continuing decline estimated to be > 10 % in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure.
Gould’s Shortwing Brachypteryx stellata (Least Concern)
One of the most sought after birds in India, we located this bird above the Sela Pass (a high-altitude mountain pass in Tawang District) at an elevation of 4,267.2 m. in the fantastic alpine regions of Western Arunachal Pradesh. I was birding with one of the keenest birders of these parts – Shashank Dalvi and we found this enigmatic bird in two habitats – one in rocky gullies above the tree line and the other in coniferous forests near Mandala off Dirang. This bird has one of the largest ranges of the short wings, extending from the Western Himalaya all the way to Yunnnan in China. In India, it is found in Kedarnath, Sikkim, Bhutan, Darjeeling, Eaglenest and the Mishmi hills. Its behaviour and song is quite different from other short wings.
Austen’s Brown Hornbill Anorrhinus austeni (Near Threatened)
An extremely rare species in India, found only in the hilly areas bordering the Brahmaputra valley in the Northeast, this dainty hornbill has a small global population, which is declining fast due to the twin impacts of habitat loss (driven by a massive timber-trade) and hunting. A very skilled Lisu guide helped me spot this bird in a reserve forest adjoining the Namdapha National Park in eastern Arunachal Pradesh. The male hornbill clung nervously onto the nest rim as tree after tree came crashing down as a result of the rampant, illegal timber felling all around him.
Bugun Liocichla Liocichla bugunorum (Vulnerable)
Described as ‘new to science’ by Ramana Athreya in 2006, this species is known only from a very small area around the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh and no population estimates are available. The bird faces threats from logging and unregulated tourism and unless other areas are found in which it thrives, it may be a difficult task to protect the species in the long run. The moment I heard about Ramana’s scintillating discovery, I wanted to photograph this species in its fascinating home! Ramana kindly guided me and helped zone in on these birds in the absolutely stunning steep valleys near Lama camp.
Kashmir Flycatcher Ficedula subrubra (Vulnerable)
A regular winter visitor to the hill station of Ooty, this male Kashmiri Fycatcher was found in the backyard of a hotel, along with Black and Orange Flycatchers and Nilgiri Laughing thrushes. Endemic to the Indian subcontinent, this small flycatcher breeds in the Kashmir area and winters mostly in Southern India and Sri Lanka. Destruction of its forest habitat in the Kashmir valley has led to declining numbers, possibly under 7,000 mature birds.
Broad-tailed Grassbird Schoenicola platyura (Vulnerable)
This old-world warbler is virtually undetectable, except during the breeding season when it sings from prominent perches. It was difficult trekking to the habitat of this amazing species with all my equipment. The trailhead for the trek was one of the highest points in Munnar in the Anamalais, not far from Eravikulam National Park. This grassland-dependent species is usually found only in the sub-montane grasslands of the high ranges of the Western Ghats. The bird inhabits dense, tall grass on slopes between 900-2,000 m. But the rapid loss of its preferred damp, tall grass and reed habitat is slowly pushing this bird towards extinction and estimates peg their numbers between 3,500-15,000 individuals.
Sociable Lapwing Vanellus gregarious (Critically endangered)
A Sociable Lapwing yawns on an extremely cold January morning in an arid expanse of the Little Rann of Kutchh. A winter visitor to India, the Sociable Lapwing has suffered very rapid decline and range contraction over the last 80 years. The global population today is estimated at 16,000-17,000 individuals across its very large range encompassing parts of Europe and Asia.
Green Avadavat Amandava Formosa (Vulnerable)
To photograph this species, I spent several hours hidden in a maize field near Mount Abu, in the ancient and rugged Aravalli mountains – one of the last strongholds of this striking munia. Once a commonly observed species across much of central and eastern India, this species has faced the brunt of the illegal cage bird trade and has vanished from large areas of its original range. The current population size is estimated at 10,000-19,999 individuals, and is rapidly declining.
Black-breasted Parrotbill Paradoxornis flavirostris (Vulnerable)
This large parrotbill occurs around the foothills of the Himalaya in eastern India. It is a lowland bird found in small parties in dense reed thickets and mixed tall grassland along river floodplains. Extensive loss and modification of its preferred habitat has brought worldwide numbers down to about 1,500-7,000 mature individuals. This bird was very tough to spot and even more challenging to shoot because of the constantly-moving blades of grass. Almost gone from its former stronghold in the Debeshwari grasslands of Kaziranga, this bird can now be seen in the marshes of Dibru-Saikhowa further east in Assam.
White-bellied Blue Robin Myiomela Albiventris (Endangered)
Found in shola forests on isolated mountain tops of southern Kerala and western Tamil Nadu (below the Palghat gap), this endemic bird faces serious threats from habitat destruction, encroachment and livestock grazing. Harvesting of fuel wood also has a detrimental effect across its fragmented range. While locally common in the shola patches in these “sky islands”, being extremely range-restricted makes them endangered. The global population size has not been quantified. The species has been split into two: north and south of Palghat known as the Nilgiri Blue Robin and White-bellied Blue Robin respectively.
Greater Adjutant Leptoptilos dubius (Endangered)
Once abundant across large parts of India, this long-lived stork is now down to less than 1,800 birds worldwide. Most abundant in Assam, the Greater Adjutant is a victim of development, which includes the loss of open garbage dumps and over-exploitation of wetlands. Having seen this bird several times at the infamous Guwahati garbage dump as well as circling high in the thermals above Kaziranga, I was pleasantly surprised to find it in the verdant setting of the rice fields of Koklabari, where I had come looking for Bengal Floricans on the eastern edge of the Manas Tiger Reserve in Assam. This boisterous bunch of four, which I initially mistook for Lesser Adjutants, seemed to be in a very playful mood.
Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler Sphenocichla humei (Near Threatened)
An extremely secretive skulker, even by wren-babblers’ standards, I finally got glimpses of this bird in the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. The bird’s movement and the nearly-dark conditions tested modern camera technology to the hilt, but I was finally able to obtain some images – at 3200 ISO. This species is endemic to the eastern Himalaya. The bird prefers the dark understorey of broad-leaved evergreen forests, which bear the brunt of shifting jhum cultivation. Estimates suggest a global population of less than 10,000 mature individuals.
Bengal Florican Houbaropsis bengalensis (Critically Endangered)
Widespread and on-going conversion of grassland habitat for agriculture and hunting has brought numbers of this large bird down to 350 – 1,500 individuals. Found mostly in India and in some parts of Southeast Asia, this bustard survives in small, isolated populations along the foothills of the Himalaya in the Indian subcontinent. The Koklabari rice fields at the eastern edge of the Manas Tiger Reserve in Assam probably have the single highest population of this bird (estimated around 80 individuals). I spent a few full days in this area and was astounded by the extremely elaborate courtship display of the territorial male. I was able to document the mechanics of its jump-flight through 36 frames of my still camera! This male in full breeding plumage with an inflated breast pouch had just taken off on its display-flight.
Marsh Babbler Pellorneum palustre (Vulnerable)
Very few people have ever seen this rare bird because of its secretive habits. Endemic to the Brahmaputra floodplain, it is possibly only found reliably in four or five sites in India. Destruction of its reed swamp and tall grass habitat has led to a serious decline in numbers and between 3,500-15,000 individuals are estimated to survive. One only hears this bird in the marshes and it has countless confusing vocalisations! I was lucky to spot it through a small opening in the foliage and a small lens helped me get close to the bird!
Read More: Sanctuary presents the work of one of India’s most accomplished wildlife photographers, Ramki Sreenivasan, who has made it his life’s purpose to document wild India for posterity.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII No. 1, February 2013.